William Kentridge: Fortuna, edited by Lilian Tone with commentary by William Kentridge. Published by Thames and Hudson, 2013
Reviewed by JANET McKENZIE
The book is illustrated with more than 2,000 images, 1,558 of which are in colour, demonstrating his remarkable productivity and range. His work reveals apparent contradictions between political and personal, static and temporal, amusing and profoundly serious.
Drawing is pivotal to all of Kentridge’s art practice. In the late 1980s, he became an internationally acclaimed artist when his animated charcoal drawing films were shown using a homemade animation technique that he describes as “stone-age film-making”. Editor and co-author Lilian Tone describes the artist’s method: “This process involves the sequential reworking of a set of charcoal drawings pinned to the wall and positioned in a fixed relationship to the camera. Rather than using a different drawing for each frame, as is seen in conventional methods of cel animation, Kentridge continuously reworks each drawing in an obsessive ritual of addition and subtraction, accumulation and erasure. Evocative iconographies dissolve into crude marks that operate at the limit of discernibility, producing powerfully expressive effects.”
Kentridge first studied politics and African studies at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg from 1973 to 1976, before studying fine art at Johannesburg Art Foundation from 1976 to 1978. His interest in theatre began at university and has continued throughout his career. It informs the dramatic and narrative character of his art as well as his ability to link drawing and film. As a draughtsman, his work in pastel and charcoal is expressionistic. From 1989 to 1996, Kentridge made an important cycle of films that allegorised South Africa's political upheavals. His work can be seen to belong to the satirical tradition of Honoré Daumier, Francisco Goya and William Hogarth, although the artist is ambivalent about his European art historical heritage as his search for identity draws on his own German, Jewish and Lithuanian roots. He uses the politically potent images from the 19th century as a framework for contemporary African subjects in the context of South Africa’s Resistance Art movement of the 1980s.
Fortuna accompanied a retrospective in Brazil, which opened at the Instituto Moreira Salles in Rio de Janeiro in October 2012 and travelled to the Fundação Iberè Camargo, Porto Alegre and the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo. With insightful commentaries by Kentridge, the publication uses an artist-focused approach based on his intuitive studio method of “directed discovery” or “fortuna”, in which he rejects his own preconceptions in order to allow his “hopes and fears and desires” to infuse the works. In drawing in the South African landscape, he turns his back on the most picturesque view to capture an honest fragment of the landscape. His recent drawings of isolated trees, in black ink brushed on old encyclopaedia pages, evoke both the doomed grace and the fetishisation of pre-colonial Africa. Given Africa’s cycles of violence and colonial domination, an authentic South African landscape no longer exists. Kentridge takes the role of artist as mediator through which the hidden trauma of the land can surface organically in the process of his work, which itself involves building, unbuilding and rebuilding. Landscape is thus pivotal to this, an essentially political art. In October 2001, in a lecture at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, reprinted in Fortuna, Kentridge observed: “All calls for certainty, whether for political jingoism or for objective knowledge, have an authoritarian origin relying on blindness and coercion, which are fundamentally contrary to what it is to be alive in the world with one’s eyes open.”
It is drawing that underpins all of Kentridge’s projects, with both the process and the finished images playing an important role in his creative act. “It is only when physically engaged on a drawing that ideas start to emerge. There is a combination between drawing and seeing, between making and assessing, that provokes a part of my mind that otherwise is closed off,” he says. This is a must-have book for those artists and readers committed to drawing as exploration and discovery; to the capacity for art in the 21st century to bring about change.